By Anna Jauhola
Drivers exam stations across Minnesota are set to reopen by the end of January after having been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
This is good news for the youth of Kittson County in particular. In May 2020, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety shut down 93 local exam stations during the pandemic, many of which are in Greater Minnesota. The remaining 15 locations absorbed so much traffic, it’s been difficult for teens to get appointments for written and behind-the-wheel tests. The two closest stations are Bemidji and Detroit Lakes. In some cases, students have gone as far as Grand Rapids and down to the Metro area.
“So these are cities our kids aren’t familiar with in the first place,” said Tina Turn, drivers training instructor at Kittson Central. “What happened for these families was they’re taking any entire day to do this – that means parents who have to take time off work, an entire day. In some cases, they spend the night. And if they didn’t pass, they were repeating that.”
Turn said at least two of her students and families spent the night so they could practice driving around town before their test.
“I just think the expense was outrageous to ask families to have to take that on,” Turn said. “It’s not something everybody can do and I think it prohibits some people from getting their license, which is not right at all.”
Students in Lancaster have had similar experiences, said Cory Waling, who teaches drivers training at Lancaster School.
“It was tough on those kids, on the families especially, because of the timing of getting kids in to take their written tests and then also for driving tests,” he said.
The most difficult issue for Lancaster, as well, was the distance families had to travel and the time it took to take exams at Bemidji, Detroit Lakes or other locations. He said at least one of his students booked their tests at Grand Rapids – a nearly four-hour drive one way.
Both Turn and Waling were relieved to hear MnDPS finally set a plan in motion to reopen local drivers exam stations.
“It’s such an important right of passage for independence anyway,” she said. “It can really logistically be a huge help to families.”
With a driver’s license, teenagers are able to drive younger siblings to and from school and activities, can get a job, gain valuable driving experience prior to attending college or going into the world, and simply gain responsibility and become good drivers.
The closures caused a few students to delay their driver’s road test, but the state at least made concessions for the written test. Some students were able to take the written test online, proctored by local teachers or their parents. Others were able to take their written tests more recently at the local driver’s license office.
But the struggle continued as parents were checking the DPS website daily for road test appointments.
“Who can add that into their life either?” Turn said, laughing. “I don’t have time to do that every day, and I’ve got a kid who’s going to be taking the test here shortly.”
According to MnDPS, the department plans to reopen all sites – including Hallock – by Jan. 31, 2022, “restoring each exam station to its pre-pandemic level of service.”
This requires the department hiring 64 examiners to fill jobs left open and 34 new examiners, plus extra training for those employees. Further, DPS must also ensure leases are up to date to operate at the previous locations.
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According to the DPS’s exam station reopening plan, Hallock’s lease negotiations are in progress and additional staff is needed at the regional office in Thief River Falls. Hallock’s office is scheduled to open in January. Other area offices nearby are also scheduled to open in January – Ada, Crookston, East Grand Forks, Roseau and Warren. The Thief River Falls location is set to open in November, but additional staff is needed.
By Anna Jauhola